The Underlying Assumption

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, April 4, 1997

There's an underlying assumption in our culture that we're going to purchase all our food. It may be at the super market, at a convenience store, in the cafeteria at work or at the fast-food place on the way home. Whether we order a pizza delivered or take a complete packaged meal from the freezer for reheating in the microwave, in every case, money will be traded for food. We are bombarded with information about foods' price, freshness, flavor and convenience. We hear about good and bad health effects, but it is always assumed that we'll be buying all our food.

The extent to which we participate in growing and preparing our food, however, may be its most important characteristic. One of the most effective strategies for addressing a wide range of environmental and social problems is to become directly involved in using local resources to feed our families and our communities.

Human beings need to eat. To stay alive, each one of us requires regular inputs of food which contain chemical energy and nutrients. The chemical energy we need - to pump our blood, to breathe, to think and to act - comes from the sun, by way of green plants and perhaps via animals.

The nutrients we require are also made or captured by plants, using sunlight, from air, water and a few common soil minerals.

In the past, humans found food right where they were - whether on the frozen Arctic tundra or in the seemingly-barren Kalahari desert, for example. People obtained food in a variety of ways including hunting, fishing, gardening and gathering. Wastes were quickly recycled into air, water and soil for reuse in a elegant, cyclical system powered totally by energy from the sun. Getting enough food provided exercise as well as an intimate knowledge of the local ecosystem. Hunting and growing rituals were the basis for culture.

Now things are very different. The last 50 years have changed everything. Americans buy most of their food. Energy and nutrients no longer come from the sunlight falling on our communities, and from the air, water and soil in our neighborhoods. The solar energy on which our bodies run is captured in Chile, Mexico or California and then trucked or flown thousands of miles before being displayed in an energy-intensive retail establishment. The nutrients we need are extracted from the air, water and soil by corn and wheat plants in the midwest at a cost of pennies a pound, and then sold to us, after processing and packaging, for dollars a pound.

The message is that we don't have to be bothered with growing or catching our own food. It's so cheap and plentiful here in the US. that suburban supermarkets and fast-food restaurants give it away "free" as long as you buy something. In the cities, citizens, churches and businesses join forces to give food away to feed more and more hungry people. Why should we worry?

A shrinking number of increasingly larger-scale farms produce our food wherever the costs for labor, land, water, regulation and environmental protection are lowest. Then, one of a shrinking number of ever-larger, global food distributors delivers the farm produce to supermarkets and stores after it's been processed, packaged, transported and advertised. For these services, the giant companies take 80 cents of every dollar we spend on food.

There are some serious problems with this system. It takes a lot more energy and resources, and causes lots more pollution to move sunlight and common nutrients halfway around the world, than it does to get them from your garden or the farm at the edge of town. The increasing distance between where the food is grown and where it's eaten, breaks nature's most elegant cycles. Soils are depleted in faraway places and here, wastes accumulate and pollute. Since food comes from the store, with no thought of the farm, we think we can turn our land into roads, malls and chemically-treated lawns. As more of the world's population behaves this way, we can expect to have serious farmland shortages soon.

Despite 10,000 years of evidence to the contrary, the USDA doesn't acknowledge gardens as "real sources of real food." The USDA thinks that real food has to be grown on a very-large scale and then it has to be sold.

So, plan to grow or buy your food locally. Plant a small garden at the very least. Better yet, start a community garden in your neighborhood. Recognize the true value of food without buying it.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.